Real Heist Stories: The $6 Million Lufthansa Robbery

Big Heist Ruined by Paranoia & Greed?

Unfortunately, it is hard to keep up with all the heists and robberies that take place around the world since we would like them to happen less often or not at all. However, we know that is too much asking. 

Since our dream is quite impossible in this part, we decided to go over all the big heists and people who have made history while being infamous to share some culture and information. 

Also, we are guilty when it comes to enjoying reading about them and discovering how that looked impossible was achieved by, usually, a small group of people. 

The Lufthansa heist is one of those that has made history for how impressive it was, even when we don’t want to admit that a crime took place. But as we were mentioning, this is part of global culture, and knowing a bit about them won’t hurt anyone. Instead, it can achieve the opposite result: helping them. 

Keep in mind we are not encouraging you to commit crimes or any robbery, but rather sharing some details and make you think, “I definitely shouldn’t give it a try and stay a responsible citizen.” 

But as crazy fans for heists and stories around them, we understand you might be curious about knowing a lot to satisfy yourself. Thus, if you were looking for more details about the Lufthansa robbery, you are in the right place. 

Exploring the Case: The Lufthansa Robbery 

There’s always a specific question we ask during our articles: where should we start? 

History involves many details, and keeping them in order is one of the toughest tasks you will have to handle. However, we’re particularly doing our best. 

That being said, what about an overview and later the details? That sounds like a plan.

Half a dozen masked robbers robbed the Lufthansa Airlines cargo warehouse at JFK Airport in New York on December 11, 1978. 

By the time and without considering today’s inflation, they took more than $5 million in cash and almost $1 million worth of jewelry; since then, the heist has remained as one of the major and most infamous events in American history.

But how did it take place, and who were the minds behind it? 

Peter Gruenewald, a Lufthansa cargo worker in JFK Airport, always dreamed of making this heist possible, and thus, he conceived the plan. 

Gruenewald was aware that Lufthansa frequently flew large amounts of unmarked cash from Europe to JFK. 

This money was usually transferred immediately to American banks via Brink’s trucks. Sometimes, however, cash deliveries arrived after the last truck had left the station. This meant that the money was kept at the airport until the next day and was vulnerable to theft, which is what made him come up with the idea.

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However, to plan and execute a robbery that will clearly take a lot of work by just knowing the location, Peter couldn’t handle it alone, which is why he presented his plan to Louis Werner, a fellow cargo worker, in the hope of getting it moving. 

What Peter wouldn’t expect is that Werner saw the robbery as a big opportunity to meet all his debts and finally get a new opportunity, which is why he double-crosses his friend and takes Gruenewald’s plan to a big-time bookmaker in the area, Martin Krugman, who later took the idea to the infamous mobster-turned-movie-consultant Henry Hill.

Henry Hill is a name you must be familiar with since he was portrayed in the famous movie “Goodfellas,” where they explain he was part of a gangster crew run by James “Jimmy The Gent” Burke. 

Jimmy’s crew, which had been earning money through nefarious acts for years, had a solid reputation in organized crime’s seedy world. 

Having a look at the idea of the robbery in Lufthansa as indeed a great opportunity, Burke and Hill were responsible for planning the robbery, especially since Jimmy’s crew was familiar with JFK. 

The airport was a convenient spot for them whenever they needed cash. For quick cash, the crew often hijacked trucks in the place, and they would usually take two to three trucks per week. In other words, they knew everything about moving cash and merchandise in the location. 

Excited and confident they could make this possible, both criminals formed the team to take care of the robbery and waited to hear from Werner, who became their insider.

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To have a short view, all the involved ones were:

  • Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards.
  • Martin Krugman.
  • Richard Eaton.
  • Tom Monteleone.
  • Louis Cafora.
  • Joanna Cafora.
  • Joe “Buddha” Manri.
  • Robert McMahon.
  • Paolo LiCastri.
  • Thomas DeSimone. 
  • Theresa Ferrara. 
  • Angelo Sepe. 
  • Vincent Asaro.
  • Joanna Lombardo. 
  • Frank James Burke. 

The Day of Truth: December 11, 1978

After a long time planning the robbery but without many details disclosed of how they came up with the ideas and strategies, the day of the robbery came. 

While being in a black Ford Econoline and wearing ski masks, they pulled up to the Lufthansa cargo facility 261 and cut the padlock using a pair of bolt cutters.

John Murray, a senior cargo agent in the terminal, was taken hostage and was led into the lunchroom, where five other Lufthansa employees were taking a scheduled break. 

The criminals ordered them to lie down on the ground with their eyes closed and then asked Murray who else was inside the building at the time. 

Murray answered that Rudi Eirich (night shift cargo traffic manager) and Kerry Whalen (cargo transfer agent) were among the others in the warehouse. As a result, he was forced to lure Eirich to go upstairs, where he was captured by the rest of the members. 

While this was inside, Whalen, the other transfer agent, spotted two men in black sitting outside the terminal. They were parked on the ramp to the Lufthansa airlines cargo building 261. 

He pulled into the parking lot and began walking toward the van, but he was told by one of the men to get into the van when he reached it. Whalen ran screaming for help but was pistol-whipped before being thrown into a van and left with the rest of the hostages.

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Rolf Rebmann, an employee in the warehouse, heard a loud noise near the loading ramp. He went to investigate and was taken by some of the robbers to the vault.

After having all the security agents, in turn, the robbers removed 72 15-pound boxes of untraceable cash from the vault and put them in the van.

Inside the vault, they also found jewelry and loaded it into the van. 

At 4:21 AM, the van pulled up to the front of the building, and the crash car followed behind. 

Two gunmen got in the van while the rest of the members got in the Buick. Two gunmen climbed into the van while the others got into the Buick while leaving explicit instructions to the employees to call the police only until 4:30 AM. 

They drove to Burke’s auto shop in Canarsie (Brooklyn), where the money boxes were taken out of the van and put in the trunks of both cars. 

Burke and his son drove in the one car. The second car was driven by four other people involved in the heist: Manri, McMahon, DeSimone, and Sepe. 

Where They Ever Caught? – Aftermath

Well, unlike other criminals from infamous heists or, at least, a part of the members involved, the ones from the Lufthansa robbery weren’t lucky to leave unpunished. 

Parnell Steven Edwards, the getaway driver, was assigned to take the van to be crushed in a mob-controlled junkyard on the night of the robbery. 

However, he got drunk and left the van illegally parked on Brooklyn street, where the police found it and noticed it had Edwards’ fingerprints and footprints inside. 

Burke decided to cut all ties with Edward and made him the first suspect in the murder of one of the employees. 

The dominoes started to fall quickly as Burke became more paranoid and greedy for more of the copious cash taken in the heist. 

Krugman was next to disappear on January 6, 1979, and during the summer that year, all the men involved in the robbery were either found dead or disappeared. 

Since it was impossible to connect the heist to Jimmy and Henry, the FBI began to focus its attention on Louis Werner, the insider of the crew.

Gruenewald, the original author of the idea, and his testimony helped Werner to be convicted of the heist. However, Werner refused to cooperate with his accomplices or give up his knowledge, and the Bureau was unable to solve the case or bring justice to those involved.

However, in 1980, Hill was finally arrested on six drug-related charges despite not being directly for the heist and murder. 

The good part is that he was quickly “flipped” by the FBI and convinced to testify against Burke as well as Paul Vario, the underboss of the Lucchese crime family. 

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Hill’s testimony resulted in Burke being convicted on two separate charges: a basketball points-shaving plan and a related murder. “Jimmy the Gent” died in prison in 1996, and Vario was convicted for racketeering (police believe he was dealing drugs as well) and also died in prison in 1988. 

In the end, all the people connected to the heist were punished directly, even if it wasn’t by the hands of the police.

Missing Details & Money: What We Know About the Millions

Since it took time to convict the main criminals behind the crime and with the death of many of them, it is only expected that the stolen money and jewelry weren’t recovered. 

All the $5 million in cash and jewelry were presumptively used for illegal transactions and actions since these “Goodfellas” weren’t anything else but direct gangsters. 

There aren’t many details about all the money, how it was used in specific, or how they divided the bounty into the members. Thus, the previous facts are our assumptions. 

Unfortunately, we will never know since they are long gone, and we doubt they would even mention for what they used it even if they were alive. 

We would have loved to listen to some stories or at least know where the money and jewelry could be to see if it was possible to get them back. 

We can tell you that this actual heist became the main subject of big television films: “The 10 Million Dollar Getaway” from 1991, and “The Big Heist” from 2001. 

Also, “Goodfellas” and how we referred to them in this article is due to the film with the name from 1990.


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5 Facts We Can Take from the Lufthansa Robbery

  • Greed and paranoia led to the fall down and death of the mobsters and associates involved in the heist.
  • Peter Gruenwald testified against his co-worker, Werner, before a Grand Jury. 
  • Henry Hill became an informant to avoid a long sentence when he was arrested in 1980 and entered the Witness Protection Program with his family. 
  • Hill was convinced that his former associates, Vario and Burke, were planning to kill him. 
  • The exact amount stolen at the time was $5 million in cash and $875.000 in jewelry.

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